On the surface, Roaring 20s looks like any other dive bar, with Christmas lights that never come down and dirty couches where visitors can sleep/pass out. But once the early patrons start arriving and the daily routines fall into place, it becomes clear that Roaring 20s is more than just a bar for these people. John brings a sack of doughnuts for the morning shift, and various other stragglers readily put up decorations because they’re saying goodbye to their favorite Las Vegas bar. For failed actor Michael, the bar is the only place he has to go, where he can have a quick shave in the bathroom without getting harassed and where everyone actually does know his name. The more people trickle into Roaring 20s, the richer the camaraderie becomes, and how important this place, these people and these daily alcoholic traditions mean to this group of inebriated misfits from all walks of life.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets directors Bill and Turner Ross give the illusion that they’re filming the events as they occur in the final hours of this bar. Personally, until halfway through the film, when I paused to read more about this it, I was under that same impression. Instead, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is more like a combination of the Maysles “day in the life” type of documentaries and John Cassavetes’ partially improvised films. Roaring 20s actually exists in New Orleans – where the Ross brothers live – and these customers are people that the directors found at other bars, but brought them together to this one for the film. Most of the film was shot in an 18-hour day and the Ross’ had a basic outline and instructions for their non-professional actors. To give the illusion that this is reality, mirrors in the bar even capture Bill and Turner filming throughout the day. But the people are the alcohol are real, and even though the scenario is somewhat falsified, this observational experiment is astounding. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is lovely, yet heartbreaking, hilarious and tragic and completely unlike any film I’ve ever seen before.
As Vietnam War vet Bruce, who arrives at the bar early and doesn’t leave until the early morning, says of Roaring 20s, “It’s a place you can go when nobody else don’t want your ass.” Simply put, as Bruce also says earlier in the film, these regulars are a cobbled together family. They cry over past losses, they laugh over the dumbest shit, and they stop each other from fighting. Yet it’s a family centered around a way to numb the pain of the outside world, an escape from the reality. Even though it’s implied this group has spent countless hours together, in many cases, they don’t know where each other lives, or if they have family. They’re a family in the sense that they get together at the same place over and over, but in reality, these relationships wouldn’t exist without the intoxication that comes along with these bonds.
Almost all of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets takes place within, behind or in the parking lot of the bar, which gives a feeling that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Filmed in 2016, there’s a sense that everything we’re seeing it about to be upended, and not just because this location will soon be closed up. There isn’t much political talk, although there is a discussion about what will happen if a potential Trump presidency does occur, and many of the drunks lament the mistakes their generation has made for the future, but as one would expect, there’s plenty of talk of regret and desires for a future that will likely never happen. Even the fact that this is a full bar already makes this feel like a relic of an ancient time. In a macro sense, the world is going to change very soon for these people, but in a smaller sense, for people like Michael, their entire world is going to be completely different and in his case, undeniably worse.
While there’s certainly plenty of sorrow in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets for these people’s future and what they will be without Roaring 20s, that’s tomorrow’s problem. Rather, the night that we’re shown is a celebration. They’ll drink and be merry, for tomorrow, who knows. Fittingly, A Night to Remember plays on the TV late in the evening, and these visitors are on their own Titanic, playing their instruments until the ship goes down.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets ends with a series of photos taken throughout the night, and that’s what this film is: a series of little snapshots of one mostly uneventful, but remarkably beautiful nights that will be remembered by this group. The film captures everything one would expect from such an evening: people are kicked out, unfunny jokes are drunkenly yelled to justify their existence, and there are plenty of conversations that seem meaningful in the moment, but will be forgotten the next day. But there’s a certain amount of profundity, enlightenment and power in other moments. At one point late in the evening, with a true disappointment in the direction his life has gone, Michael tells a musician, begging him to quit his current lifestyle, “There is nothing more boring than a guy who used to do stuff, who doesn’t do stuff no more, because he’s in a bar.” People cry over lost wives, lost kids and lost opportunities. But there’s also the potential for hope and change and new beginnings. A man and woman who have danced and propositioned each other throughout the night sit on a couch, both too shy in the waning hours to hold each other’s hands, a sweet moment that could signal the start of something new. The group gathers outside as a last celebration to their bar, armed with sparklers and singing along to “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” on the jukebox. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is full of tender, touching and honest moments like this that have an impact on us, even if they’ll only be half-remembered once the sun comes up.
This is a rich tapestry of people that the Ross brothers neither condemn nor praise, but instead present these characters without comment in their natural habitat. There’s a genuine fondness for the interactions and the occasional magic that can come out of a night like this, where nothing matters but the people on the stools next to you. Fiction or not, Bill and Turner Ross have captured magic in this ode to the downtrodden and remorseful, and the beauty of having a place with others to call home. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a tremendous and unique achievement, one of the best films of the year so far and hopefully, a future classic.